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Medea has one problem, however. Aside from the fact she is a witch, she is a barbarian, a non-Greek. The Greeks used the word "barbaros" to refer to all people who weren't Greek, because if they didn't speak Greek, it just sounded like "bar bar bar" to the Greeks.
So after Jason and Medea settle in together back in Greece, his homeland, he decides that his interests (and Medea's) are better served if he marries the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Medea gets jealous, poisons the woman, and then kills her two children in revenge.
Medea is an absolutely riveting character, whose tragic problems are those of all woman who have left their homes and families to follow men to foreign lands, only to be scorned by them in the end. The speeches of Jason and Medea are remarkable point-counterpoint presentations which reflect the deep influence of the sophists of Euripides' day. Medea sounds, at times, like a proto-feminist. She is one of the most enduring dramatic creations of all times, revealing with each line the remarkable genius of Euripides, the most modern of the three great Greek tragedians
Another important thing to remember in reading "Medea" is that the basic elements of the story were already known to the Athenian audience that would be watching the play. Consequently, when the fact that Medea is going to kill her children is not a surprise what becomes important are the motivations the playwright presents in telling this version of the story. The audience remembers the story of the Quest for the Golden Fleece and how Medea betrayed her family and her native land to help Jason. In some versions of the story Medea goes so far as to kill her brother, chop up his body, and throw it into the sea so their father, the King of Colchis, must stop his pursuit of the Argo to retrieve the body of his son. However, as a foreigner Medea is not allowed to a true wife to Jason, and when he has the opportunity to improve his fortune by marrying the princess of Corinth, Medea and everything she had done for him are quickly forgotten.
To add insult to injury, Jason assures Medea that his sons will be well treated at the court while the King of Corinth, worried that the sorceress will seek vengeance, banishes her from the land. After securing sanctuary in Athens (certainly an ironic choice given this is where the play is being performed), Medea constructs a rather complex plan. Having coated a cloak with poison, she has her children deliver it to the princess; not only will the princess die when she puts on the cloak (and her father along with her), the complicity of the children in the crime will give her an excuse to justify killing in order to literally save them from the wrath of the Corinthians.
This raises an interest questions: Could Medea have taken the children with her to her exile in Athens? On the one hand I want to answer that obviously, yes, she can; there is certainly room in her dragon-drawn chariot. But given her status as a foreigner, if Jason goes to Athens and demands the return of his children, would he not then have a claim that Medea could not contest? More importantly, is not Medea's ultimate vengeance on Jason that she will hurt him by taking away everything he holds dear, namely his children and his princess bride?
In the final line of the play the Chorus laments: "Many things beyond expectation do the gods fulfill. That which was expected has not been accomplished; for that which was unexpected has god found the way. Such was the end of this story." This last line has also found its way into the conclusion of other dramas by Euripides ("Alcestis," "Bacchae" and "Andromache"), but I have always found it to fit the ending of "Medea" best, so I suspect that is where it originally came from and ended up being appended to those other plays sometime during the last several thousand years. However, the statement is rather disingenuous because one of the rather standard approaches in a play by Euripides is that his characters often deserve their fate. In a very real sense, Euripides provides justification for Medea's monstrous crime and his implicit argument to the Athenian audience is that the punishment fits the crime. However, Athenians would never give up their air of superiority; at least not until foreigners such as the Macedonians and the Romans conquered the self-professed cradle of democracy.
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This book is close to being a model for the presentation of translated material. (Only close: the absence of line numbers, and other such quibbles, make it fall short of the ideal.) Elliot's text is a single long poem (512 lines) published in 1917 by the French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945), whom some call the last of the Symbolists. The poem took the author four years to write, and it immediately established his reputation as a major figure in French poetry.
Meticulously crafted and ineffably musical, but alas fearsomely difficult, the text was considered obscure even by the author - so what hope have we got? Much more now, given Elliot's rendering and his judicious though not copious notes.
What of the translation itself? I thought it was fresh and modern: perhaps often too modern and too easy, for such a work of scintillating surfaces and unfathomed depths. Given that the translator does not circumscribe his choices by the burden of rhyming (though the original is composed in rhymed Alexandrine couplets), one might have hoped for more soigné workings, more true to Valéry's own wonted register. But then, maybe I'm just old-fashioned!
I am preparing my own translation of this poem, and it is to be in rhymed pentameters throughout. This is indeed possible, and it will not (despite Elliot's opinion) take 16 years! Here, for comparison, are three versions of the first six lines:
Qui pleure là, sinon le vent simple, à cette heure
Seule, avec diamants extrêmes?... Mais qui pleure,
Si proche de moi-même au moment de pleurer?
Cette main, sur mes traits qu'elle rêve effleurer,
Distraitement docile à quelque fin profonde,
Attend de ma faiblesse une larme qui fonde,
Is that the simple wind? If not, who's crying
There at this hour alone with furthest diamonds?
Who's there, so near me at the point of crying?
This hand, dreaming its way across my features,
Distractedly obeying some deep order,
Looks for a tear to melt out of my weakness -
Who's weeping there? Or could it simply be
The wind that weeps, so very close to me
When I, alone with diamond stars, would weep?
Distracted by some purpose pure and deep
This hand is resting where it dreams it strokes,
All poised to catch the tear this hour provokes...
Elliot says in his introduction that he has met only one other person who has read La Jeune Parque. There should certainly be many more now, thanks to his efforts, on which I heartily congratulate him.
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